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Food for an eye opener thought

Human Rights Reader 240


Activists do not need to be original thinkers as much as they need to be original listeners.

They are not only witnesses, but doers, particularly social mobilizers.

1. As a starter, a random list of desirable attributes can be an eye opener.

Human rights activists are expected to be: agenda setters, catalysts, promoters, conveners, finders of seed money, collectors, disseminators, advocates, educators, linkers, sponsors, defenders, observers, judges, presenters of the proper and contesters of the faulty evidence, pushers of changes-people-can-believe-in (D. Gwatkin), visionaries that see tomorrow when others only see today, active opponents of corporations that violate social and environmental standards in their operations, vectors/promoters/ announcers of the new human rights (HR) paradigm…

2. But realistically, on the one hand, HR activists cannot be omnipresent –granted. So they have to opt to carry out certain roles more effectively and rule out other. (J. Cloke, Development in Practice) But on the other hand, HR activists do not usually operate in conventional give-and-take terms; they have an agenda in which some elements are non-negotiable: HR are non-negotiable.

3. Since there is no point any longer to abide by the several myths entrenched by the hegemonic Northern-led development paradigm (which still treats its perceptions as if they always were the product of objective facts), HR activists have to undo old hierarchies and undo myths that come from it. They also have to undo myths that come from the obsolete overseas development assistance (ODA) model that comes with it …a particularly odd model indeed (a remnant of colonialism?). The model reminds us of the absurd of a court allowing a thief to spend some more of the money he has stolen before passing sentence. (U. Avnery)]. 

6. HR activists have a big task in front of them: a task much deeper, more complex than a public visibility campaign; a task that is more than just the physical bringing together of likeminded people. They cannot lower their guard; they have to unlearn and change much of what they learned about how society works –since the glass is already full and they need to make room for new, HR-based concepts… Ergo, they cannot advance without being all-encompassing in their work, i.e., work with both  the powerful and with the still unorganized poor and marginalized people that have, for too long, been relegated to (…or opted to?) live in a state of resignation. It is for activists to raise consciousness thus widening the scope of people’s alternatives, opening a whole new cosmo-vision to which they need to be introduced-to.

7. HR are obviously a global theme, but less obvious is the fact that HR are ultimately a theme that is resolved at the individual and community level –at the conscience of each individual and member of that community. Thus the important priority role of HR activists in pioneering human rights learning.

8. When faced with a given reality, HR activists have to ponder the action alternatives that that reality calls for; but these actions become viable and sustainable only when the-more-global-scenario is taken into consideration; it is the latter that opens the doors for the mobilization and solidarity work needed to bring about the switch to the new HR paradigm that will eventually lead to the concrete worldwide changes needed to effectively counter the relentless process of globalization with its negative HR consequences.*

*: A paradigm is somewhat similar to group-thinking, mindset or discourse, or an explanatory conceptual framework, or a world view or cosmo-vision. Paradigms lead to thinking inside the box. (U. Jonsson)

9. An example of how the ‘bigger picture’ needs to be taken into account is here given for activists working in the field of health. In their case: 

  • the WHO Constitution provides them with an overall umbrella of what the human right to health (RTH) is;
  • the text of the  UN RTH and General Comment No.12 (#) –and, of course, HR standards (i.e., the desirable outcomes pursued as, for example, some of the MDGs) and HR principles (i.e., the required criteria for the HR-based processes to be set in motion: indivisibility, inter-relatedness, universality of HR, respect of human dignity, right to life and to development, equality, rule of law, non-discrimination, empowering participation, accountability) — are the documents that provide them with the advocacy and the political framework for their activism;
  • the principles of comprehensive primary health care (PHC), as set in the 1978 Alma Ata Declaration (consistent with HR standards), acquaint them with the basics on health care and with the basic and underlying social determinants of ill-health, malnutrition and preventable deaths;
  • WHO’s Report on the Social Determinants of Health (SDH) provides them with guidance to assess both HR violations and the effectiveness (or not) of ongoing interventions to reverse those violations.

The knowledge generated by these documents points them to what issues need addressing in each specific locality. Therefore, everything they do in their work in health must incorporate these four elements. A campaign for the RTH has thus to integrate these elements when focusing on the ‘HR-worthiness’ of existing health systems. In short, RTH work must tap into the ongoing global efforts to drastically change health systems using the human right to health as a framework. (L. Turiano) **

**: These are also the four legs on which the People’s Health Movement Charter for Health stands, and the basis of PHM’s Global Right to Health Care campaign. (

10. As can be gathered, in general, it is HR activists that come from the non-academic sphere that have to play the greater protagonists’ role. Among all other roles, they also have to expose local leaders (or academics…) that speak of programs, needs and injustices but, in their speeches, writings or actions, rarely address what is behind HR violations.

11. Bottom line, we expect HR activists to be competent directors who oversee the putting into action a collectively arrived-at, well-written script. It is for the players though to act-out that script as the main protagonists. ***

***: Caveat: The power to act is different from the ability to act; in an effort to achieve results, we often give responsibilities to individuals and/or institutions with the ability  –and not with the power– to act. (U. Jonsson) This is at the very core of the HR-based framework, namely, activists’ work with claim holders and duty bearers is to precisely go from the ability to the power to make needed changes.

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City  


A few aspects adapted from Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger, Free Press, N. Y., 2008; L. Weinstein, Ed. Multiversidad, Editorial Universidad Bolivariana, Coleccion Nuevos Paradigmas, Santiago, Chile, Mayo 2009; and D+C, Vol.36, No.9. Sept. 2009.

Postscript: Remember! You may be small, but if the light is positioned right, you cast a long shadow.

(#):General Comment 1, Reporting by States parties.

General Comment 2, International technical assistance measures.

General Comment 3, The nature of States parties’ obligations.

General Comment 4, The right to adequate housing.

General Comment No. 5, Persons with disabilities.

General Comment No. 6, The economic, social and cultural rights of older persons.

General Comment 7, Forced evictions, and the right to adequate housing.

General Comment 8, The relationship between economic sanctions and respect for economic, social and cultural rights.

General Comment 9, The domestic application of the Covenant.

General Comment 10, The role of national human rights institutions in the protection of economic, social and cultural rights.

General Comment 11, Plans of action for primary education.

General Comment 12, Right to adequate food.

General Comment 13, The right to education.

General Comment 14, The right to the highest attainable standard of health.

General Comment 15, The right to water.

General Comment 16, The equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all economic, social and cultural  rights.

General Comment 17, The right of everyone to benefit from the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he or she is the author.

General Comment 18, The equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all economic, social and cultural.
General Comment 19, The right to social security (art. 9) (Thirty-ninth session, 2007), U.N. Doc. E/C.12/GC/19 (2008).
General Comment No. 20, Non-Discrimination in Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

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